Jamesetta Ferguson retired from the University of Louisville School of Medical School in early February after more than 29 years in the Pathology Department. That means that she only has two jobs now – senior pastor of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in the Russell neighborhood and president of the Molo Village Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit started by the church in 2011 but has been an independent organization four years now.
Ferguson’s current positions both have her focused on a $7.4 million project called The Villages @ West Jefferson. The project involved renovating St. Peter’s 121 years edifice and turning some vacant property next to the church into an office and retail development. Ferguson said she had hoped to start work on the project last year, but the groundbreaking was delayed because of financial issues.
The proposed development is already 70 percent pre-leased with the tenants to include a minority-owned health clinic, a counseling service, and a cafe operated by the New Legacy Reentry Corporation.
The Louisville Metro Housing Authority will also have an office in The Village @ West Jefferson as part of Vision Russell, its effort to revitalize Russell using a $30 million Choice Neighborhood Initiative grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Department.
“The Choice Initiative is a 10-year project. We felt that if you are going to revitalize this area, then you had to be present here. The Housing Authority agreed with that,” Ferguson said.
The housing authority has given $600,000 to The Village @ West Jefferson project. St. Peter’s has also received $1 million from several charitable foundations, Ferguson said, and it is awaiting another $2.2 million in New Market Tax Credits from the federal government.
“We were approved last year for the tax credits and we had until June 30 to close on the deal. We could not close because we still had a gap in our funding. What we had to do was wait for the allocation this year. It has been done, so we’re just waiting for it to be finalized,” Ferguson explained.
The balance of St. Peter’s funding is coming from the United Church of Christ’s Church Building and Loan Fund through its Partner In Vision Program. Ferguson said many urban churches have large amounts of excess property because of declines in attendance.
Instead of the traditional model where the church sells off the property and relocates, she said, the United Church of Christ wants to encourage these congregations to redevelop the property themselves as a sustainable source of income.
St. Peters is the first recipient in the nation of the Partners In Vision Program. If The Village @ West Jefferson is successful, Ferguson said, it will become a national model.
The roots of St. Peter’s go back to 1847 when it was founded as St. Peter’s German Evangelical Church. At the time, Russell was mostly populated by German immigrants. As more African-American families moved into the neighborhood around it, Ferguson said, the German Reform church became less involved with the community.
Although she has never lived in Russell, Ferguson is very familiar with this history.
Her father, Donald Fitzgerald, was one of the first African-American police officers in Louisville and her mother Anne Fitzgerald was a school teacher. After her parent’s divorce, Ferguson’s father moved to Detroit, so her mother depended on an aunt named Georgetta Robinson for childcare.
Robinson just happened to live in the Beecher Terrace Housing Project, which is located directly across the street from St. Peter’s.
“I spent most of my time at my aunt’s house. St. Peter’s was invisible to me and most people in Beecher because we saw people there occasionally, maybe on Sunday, but we were never invited in,” Ferguson remembered.
Ferguson’s mother remarried and the family moved to Lexington. She grew up there until she went to college at Central State University. Ferguson majored in business administration and finance. She also met her husband Levie at Central State. It took her 10 years, she said, to persuade him to move to Louisville.
Once she was back in town, Ferguson obtained a master’s degree in education at the University of Louisville. Ferguson said around that time she started feeling the call to the ministry, and she was particularly drawn to the United Church of Church because of its history of supporting social justice causes.
While studying for her master of divinity at the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, Ferguson was set on the path to St. Peter’s. As a master’s student, Ferguson was required to complete a four-semester internship. She did her first three semesters at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, but an interim pastor at St. Peter’s requested that she move there for her final semester.
What the minister had no way of knowing is that Ferguson had a unique knowledge of German culture. Her father had attended Louisville Municipal College, where he majored in German. Donald Fitzgerald passed his interest in the culture down to his daughter.
In her time as an intern at St. Peter’s, Ferguson became a bridge between the old German members and the African-American families that lived in the community. She was so good at it that after her internship ended in 2006, the congregation asked her to stay on as the church’s pastor.
Ferguson said the fact that she ended up at the church she used to pass by 40 years ago is proof to her that God has a sense of humor.
“When I first started, the church had about 15 German senior adults. Of those 15, three were in their 50s and the rest were in their 80s. One left because he did not want to worship with folks that look like me, and I’ve buried all but three of the rest of them. We are pretty much like a new church now,” she said.
Ferguson received a doctorate in divinity in 2014.
The concept for The Village @ West Jefferson came about, Ferguson said, because St. Peter’s congregation could not afford the upkeep of their historic church. Rather than sell, the congregation decided to redevelop their property. The 100 members of the church moved to a rented space in Russell Plaza, a strip mall at 15th and Jefferson streets, a couple of years ago to await the renovation of their church.
In their new space, Ferguson holds church services and operates the Molo Village programs. MOLO means “welcome” in Xhousa, a South African dialect. The organization offers several programs aimed at addressing some of the complex issues that face the Russell community.
Molo Village has five missions, called villages through Russell. The 15th and Jefferson street location is known as Isiduko Village and it is focused on providing activities for older citizens. The organization partnered with Metro Community Resiliency to serve hot lunches and Molo Village offers them exercise classes and other socialization opportunities.
Molo Village also offers a Reentry Program, one that is 12-weeks and one that is 12-months. The 12-week program covers emotional life skills and workforce training. The 12-month program does the same but also requires 160 hours of course work, volunteerism and participation in workshops.
Ferguson said the reentry programs serve more than 400 people a week. Once The Village @ West Jefferson is done, Ferguson said, Molo Village will have its offices and other serves in the new development. She hopes to break ground on the project in May at the latest, but the tax credits were delayed by the recent government shutdown.